The Waterboys: Out Of All This Blue BMG ***
Sparks: Hippopotamus BMG ***
Tori Amos: Native Invader Decca ***
One of the chief joys of The Waterboys is the carefree eclecticism with which they have conducted a career spanning four decades. Mainman Mike Scott, the only predictable constant, is constantly unpredictable – in his choice of fellow travellers, musical stylings and recording environments.
So it feels a tad cheeky to complain about the range on Out Of All This Blue, a sprawling double album collection for his new home of BMG Records, which won’t be fenced in by expectations of The Waterboys’ signature Big Music or raggle taggle Celtic soul but dabbles in modern pop and hip-hop production effects without ever sounding like modern pop or hip-hop.
There is some continuity with 2015’s lumbering Modern Blues in that Scott has convened many of the same musicians, including his wingman Steve Wickham, Muscle Shoals bassman David Hood and Hammond organist “Brother Paul” Brown, but Out Of All This Blue builds on its hoary blues bedrock with the pop gospel of Do We Choose Who We Love and processed funk and disco strings of If I Was Your Boyfriend.
It takes a moment to attune the ear to the slicker production sound and a good 90 minutes to wade through the good, bad and throwaway across its 23 tracks. Among the more gratifying experiments are Wickham’s keening rock’n’roll fiddle on the industrial bluegrass of The Connemara Fox, the warm, devotional mantra of Love Walks In, the eight-minute southern soul epic Morning Came Too Soon and Kinky’s History Lesson, styled after Texan man o’ parts Kinky Friedman, in which Scott delivers an alternative potted history of the Second World War over a loping country beat.
Scott looks east as much as west for inspiration. Rokudenashiko is one of numerous love songs to his new wife, the Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi, and there are references to the Tokyo nightlife district of Roppongi on Didn’t We Walk On Water, a carefree soul pop number with groovy stabs of mellotron and clavinet.
But the doubtless heartfelt tributes on Payo Payo Chin and Yamaben are more disposable ditties – and had Scott actually disposed of these and other flabbier tracks, he could have produced a more lovable album.
Veteran pop duo Sparks also make their BMG debut with their first album of all-new material since 2008’s Exotic Creatures of the Deep. They have hardly been napping in the interim, producing a pop opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and conjoining with Franz Ferdinand on the glorious FFS, but once again they get to burst forth with idiosyncratic lyrical themes which are uniquely Sparks. Hippopotamus contains songs inspired by French chanson, IKEA, a harassed God, historical satirical jokes and French film directors (on a number handily featuring French film director Leos Carax), delivered in quintessential Sparks style from heightened operatic pop to vaudevillian wit. By not taking themselves seriously, Sparks continue to demonstrate that they are serious about pop music.
Tori Amos is serious, period. But she has every reason to be, as the making of her latest album on the theme of renewal in the natural world was interrupted by the election of Donald Trump and the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Native Invader then took on a more personal dimension when her mother suffered a stroke. Amos marshals the raw emotions of the past year into her usual elegant, expansive pop, which is delicious to listen to, as if challenging through stealth. She keeps the drama in check throughout the proggy likes of Bang and Benjamin, with the latter’s fuzz guitar and deft rhythmic changes being about as far out as she sails on this environmental voyage.
Ned Bigham: Staffa
Aruna Records **
Ned Bigham’s orchestral work Staffa, designed to partner audio-visual artist Gerry Fox’s triple screen photographic sweep of the Inner Hebridean island, was premiered at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. That performance, given by the BBC SSO, revealed a piece of music that was quaint and inoffensive, but formulaic in its structural rigidity and thematic predictability. That impression persists in this release, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under conductor Jeane-Claude Picard, but offers a wider vista of Bigham’s music in the two sets of Archipelago Dances – which play mischievously, often jazzily, with irregular rhythmic cells – and the somnambulant Two Nightscapes. For some listeners, the incessant repetitiveness of this music, and a language that draws much on the minimalist energies of Reich, Glass and Adams, might just be the ticket. For me, its aesthetic quality goes little beyond composing by numbers.
Mike Stern: Trip
Heads Up ****
When jazz-rock guitarist Mike Stern tripped over while hailing a taxi, fracturing both arms and damaging nerves in his right hand, it could have been the end of a stellar career. Several operations on, this album suggests definitively otherwise.
He’s joined by such distinguished collaborators as trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonists Bill Evans and Bob Franceschini, bassist Victor Wooten, drummer Dennis Chambers and others, with producer Jim Beard on piano. Listen to them on the rollercoaster ride of Half Crazy, with Evans’s tenor sax shadowing Stern’s jumpy guitar line before both take energetic breaks. Scotch Tape and Glue refers to Stern’s enforced method of holding a plectrum, although you wouldn’t know from his muscular fluidity. The mellow side to his playing and his mellifluous vocalising – supported by singer Gio Moratti and his wife Leni Stern on ngoni – come into play for the lyrical Amelia. ■